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U.S. Arms for Turkish Abuses

On his way to a major international summit in Istanbul this week, President Clinton stopped off on Monday to tut-tut the Turkish parliament over its country's dismal human rights record and ongoing repression of its Kurdish minority. Apparently, it slipped his mind that the number one source of weapons for Turkey's overzealous security forces is the U.S. itself.

by Michelle Ciarrocca
Nov. 17, 1999

Clinton will join 54 other heads of state on Thursday for a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). As part of its mission to bolster regional security, the OSCE is committed to promoting democracy, human rights, and preventive diplomacy - all principles that Turkey continues to flout, with American acquiescence.

Turkey has received more than $5 billion worth of U.S. weaponry under the Clinton Administration, with arms exports to Turkey topping $1 billion for the first time ever in 1997, according to a new report from the World Policy Institute and the Federation of American Scientists. Despite having to contend with an estimated $7 to $12 billion in reconstruction costs following Turkey's two recent devastating earthquakes and a faltering economy, Turkey remains intent on moving forward with its ambitious military modernization plans. As Turkish Secretary of State Recep Onal recently put it, "As at the time of the liberation, there is only enough money for arms and ammunition."

Turkey plans to spend an estimated $31 billion over the next eight years, and up to $150 billion through 2030, on its armed forces. Some of the big ticket items on Turkey's shopping list include 145 attack helicopters, 90 utility and heavy lift helicopters, 1,000 main battle tanks, four submarines, and four airborne early warning aircraft - all of which U.S. companies are clamoring to sell them. The U.S. already supplies close to 80% of Turkey's weapons imports.

The U.S. maintains a strong military relationship with Turkey for many reasons, including Turkey's role as a key NATO ally, its cooperation with U.S. forces in Iraq and its strategic position amid Europe, the Middle East, and the Caucasus. American officials contend that this hand-in-hand military relationship also gives the U.S. influence in regards to such issues as respect for human rights and peaceful settlements to the Cyprus dispute and Turkey's war against the autonomy-seeking guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). But in fact, this leverage is rarely applied.

The Clinton administration's own State Department noted in its most recent report on human rights that extrajudicial killings, the excessive use of force, disappearances, and torture by Turkish security forces remained widespread. Teaching or broadcasting in the Kurdish language - the native tongue of some ten million Turkish citizens - is prohibited. Publishing the wrong opinions on the subjects of the Turkish military, the role of Islam in politics, or the Kurdish conflict can mean imprisonment. The European Union continues to withhold full membership status from Turkey because of what the EU executive commission calls its "serious shortcoming" in human rights and democratization.

Nonetheless, the U.S. has made only modest attempts to push Turkey to improve its human rights record. Most recently, in Turkey's $4 billion attack helicopter purchasing bid in December of 1997, the State Department granted marketing licenses to both Boeing and Bell Textron but stated that a final export license would be conditional upon "significant progress" in human rights. The license, however, is expected to be granted within months, as have countless others in recent years. During a press briefing this past summer, Secretary of Defense William Cohen breezily said he saw "no impediments whatsoever" to such arms deals.

Nor has the U.S. made any serious progress towards solving the Cyprus or Kurdish conflicts. In Cyprus, instead of functioning as a mediator in search of a diplomatic solution between Greece and Turkey, the U.S. has sparked a regional arms race by continuing to supply advanced military weapons to both sides. In the Kurdish conflict, Turkey's military leaders refuse to negotiate with the guerillas, instead pursuing an all-out military victory - despite the PKK's recent diplomatic overtures, including a unilateral cease-fire and troop withdrawal. To date, Turkey's 15-year war against the PKK has claimed over 30,000 lives, displaced 2 million people, and destroyed 3,000 Kurdish villages - with the help of U.S. supplied armored personnel carriers, fighter planes, and attack helicopters, according to Human Rights Watch.

Still, there are signs of an improving political climate emerging in Turkey. Just weeks ago local non-governmental organizations and Turkish Minister of State Mehmet Ali Irtemcelik met for the first time ever to discuss Turkey's human rights agenda and the country's democratization process. In September, Sami Selcuk, the President of the Turkish Court of Appeals, openly criticized the 1982 Turkish constitution, something that would have meant imprisonment or worse in years past. "The constitution was not founded by a government chosen by the free will of the people", said Selcuk, adding that "Turkey must not enter the 21st century as a country that is busy, by repressive laws, crushing its inhabitants and reducing them to silence." And an amnesty law was passed ordering the release and/or pardon of many journalists and writers who had been imprisoned for writings that were critical of the military or governments handling of the Kurdish conflict. While these are small steps, they offer the U.S. a chance to use its leverage to urge Turkey to continue on the path of peaceful diplomacy and respect for human rights.

As Turkey's number one weapons provider, the U.S. can play a pivotal role in the nation's political development. The Clinton Administration has a responsibility to not just place conditions on future sales of military equipment, but to insist that Turkey seize upon its best chance in over a decade to bring an end to the violence. The OSCE gathering offers the perfect opportunity to raise these issues, and for the U.S. to commit to supporting Turkey's emergence as a truly democratic state.

Michelle Ciarrocca is a Research Associate at the World Policy Institute.

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